Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Let’s talk about impact in philanthropy. I’ve been thinking all week about the outcome of the Zimmerman trial. A young black man is killed by a vigilante, who walks free. The fear and suspicion that motivated Zimmerman to get out of the car are judged to be acceptable, “reasonable.”

When we judge impact through the filter of numbers, statistics, and abstract metrics, we reinforce a mode of philanthropy that is arm’s-length. This can be good, in that it can cause us to question our biases of nationality. If the same dollar can save three lives in Southeast Asia and one life in Detroit, shouldn’t we see past our common nationality with the person in Detroit and save the people in Africa? As the Gates Foundation tagline now reads, “All Lives Have Equal Value”. Peter Singer’s TED talk unfolds along these lines.

And yet. To stand behind this Rawlsian veil of ignorance, to set aside the accidents of our birth, is to give up many of the things that make us human, that make us who we are as individuals. And in philanthropy, the love of mankind, that has to count for something – for a lot. Maybe everything.

This tendency, one might say this imperative, to think dispassionately about the impact of our giving reinforces plays into and reinforces the social distance that allows us to see nothing but “other”s all around us. To be that calculator of the greatest good, that machine, distances us from the intuitions and fellow feeling that not only drive the motivation to give but allow us to see the humanity in those who are unlike us.

It’s ironic because a lot of people’s intuitions about young black men are like those of George Zimmerman. We can’t accept our own biases unquestioningly. But we all come to our love of humanity, our philanthropy, from a particular place, from a particular (literal) embodiment of humanity. To deny that is to make it that much easier to think of others as less-than.

The skills we need to cultivate in ourselves and in our children for the 21st century, when so many forces atomize our societies, are empathy, imagination, and the ability to understand, acknowledge, and respect the humanity of others. Philanthropy can be a powerful tool for cultivating these skills. And while a technocratic, dispassionate approach to judging impact can overcome certain biases in a way that is important and valuable, it can ironically also undermine the very bases and motivations of giving. Little surprise, then, that despite trends in the field, the vast majority of individual donors decide to give not by judging impact as Singer and Gates might have us do, but by affiliation or intuition. I can’t see this as entirely a bad thing.

Maybe citizen philanthropy is especially important because you never know who’s going to be on the jury when the next George Zimmerman goes on trial. I’d rather they have the experience of thinking and feeling deeply the needs of others and giving of themselves and their money to uplift the humanity of others. That, in the end, may be the real power of philanthropy.


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